Wednesday, September 10, 2008

letters and papers from prison




earlier this week i received a letter from a friend and the next day i responded in kind. i was pleased to do so. in fact, i used to write letters much more than i do now, but there is rarely any need for that anymore. writing an email may seem like writing a letter, but it requires much less finesse and thought.

receiving this letter reminded me of books containing letters written by famous people, several of which have had a deep influence on me. there's rainer maria rilke's letters to a young poet, christopher hitchens' letters to a young contrarian, and karl barth's, letters '61-'68.

but, by far the most influential book of letters has been letters and papers from prison, by dietrich bonhoeffer.

as biographical background: bonhoeffer was a lutheran pastor and theologian during world war two. his conscience led him to participate in the july 20, 1944 plot to assassinate adolf hitler. he was subsequently arrested for this and was hanged on april 9, 1945.

what is incredible is just how much influence he continues to wield over portions of christianity in the west, especially when we consider how his life and thought was cut short. so, what i thought i would do is lead us into an ongoing but occasional conversation with and about bonhoeffer.

i begin with the account of bonhoeffer's death as told by h. fischer-hullstrung:

"on the morning of that day between five and six o'clock the prisoners...were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. through the half open door in one room of the huts i saw pastor bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison grab, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his god. i was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that god heard his prayer. at the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. his death ensued after a few seconds. in the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, i have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of god." (quote take from: i knew dietrich bonhoeffer, pg. 232)